Feeding yourself in the city of the future: Food as urban sovereignty

Classical urbanism transforms food as an instrument of control by making us distant from its origins and source. True urban sovereignty requires us to reconfigure our relationship to food in a fundamental manner


R Swaminathan | September 26, 2017

#Urbanisation   #Urban India   #Food   #Future City   #Quantum Urbanism  
(Photo: Arun Kumar)
(Photo: Arun Kumar)

We rarely think of food as a viewpoint. We understand the world of food, but not so much its worldview. Everything that we consider as food has a rich context that’s one part history, one part anthropology, significant bits of science, and a liberal sprinkling of medicine, politics, culture and economics. It’s also completely filled with human subjectivities of every imaginable kind. It’s necessary to unpack the context of food to understand how we get to the final point of actually consuming it. Food fuels the deep human desire to belong and congregate so much that it powerfully defines forces ranging from raw ethnic impulses to the smooth and sophisticated global flows. Food is also deeply visceral determining individual moods, family ties and social norms. 

Yet, in its fundamental form food is neither foreign nor indigenous. Nor is it exotic or plain and neither is it urban nor rural. Like a hyper-microscopic element of the quantum realm, food exists in multiple states with the seeming ability to collapse space and time to appear at the same place at the same time till it is given shape and defined by human intellect and logic. Understanding and unpacking this context of food is all the more critical for tackling the emerging quantum nature of urban life, one that’s having an impact on every aspect of the way we live. Sooner than later, it’s bound to impact how we produce, distribute and consume food. This will in turn require us not only to rethink notions of what is urban and what’s not and what is rural and what’s not, but also what future urban spaces look and feel like and what they should do for people and communities. 

Breaking bread and why it’s not about the dough

When someone invites you to break bread with them it’s about everything but the bread. Yet when that same someone is ravenously hungry and asks you for bread it’s only about the bread and not about anything else at all. Our relationship with food is complex. It’s both minutely molecular and grandly existential at the same time. Such is its granularity that a minuscule difference in the proportion of a single ingredient in a dish can banish it to the culinary wilderness haunted by unauthentic recipes discarded for not being traditional enough.

This same granularity also allows food scientists to strip all minerals and nutrients from the different organic elements constituting a particular food, reproduce them in laboratories and recombine them at scale to create an approximation of the original food. An artificially flavoured orange drink – close enough to the real drink – is a common illustration. Molecular gastronomy where food can be shaped as one and made to taste like something else is another, but uncommon, illustration.
Ironically, such granularity is the essential bedrock that transforms food into a sharp existential lens for all kinds of norms and rules that drive the politics and economics of inclusion and exclusion. If cow as the sacrosanct animal and beef as integral food is one end of a hyperlocal inclusion-exclusion spectrum then McDonaldisation of food as an international standard and the fetishisation of culinary skills through cookery shows and high-end restaurants is the other end of the hyperglobal inclusion-exclusion spectrum.

The big food question for quantum urbanism

Our relationship with food is deeply emotional despite the huge amounts of science, logistics and retail muscle that go behind producing and processing it. Cooking and partaking of food can be an extremely private or an intensely public activity. Food is laced with divine symbolism and agnostic materialism. Yet, the average city and town dweller doesn’t really know where his or her food comes from or how it’s grown or bred or who grows or breeds it or how it’s brought to the shops and finally to the table. Classical urbanism with its deep roots to systems thinking and its linear constructs of scale, size, standardisation and an industrial shop-floor model of production-distribution-consumption has seen food only from the prism of demand and supply. Just as it has approached mobility as mass public transport and individual private transport, work as jobs in offices and macro economy, energy as big electricity plants, massive distribution infrastructure and billing, water as a civic amenity, ecology as green spaces, open spaces as parks and human talent as skills. So, food is calories, nutrition and taste.

This is every modern city, from Mumbai to Miami, from Shanghai to Singapore, from Seoul to Stockholm. Massive demand has to be met with massive supply. And massive supply has to come from centralised production hubs from factories, industrial units, SEZs and even industrial cities. Think cars. Think steel. Think toys. Think FMCG goods. Think hospitals. Now, think agriculture. Somehow, like a logic question in a management exam, it sticks out brazenly. It doesn’t belong to the grouping. For one, classical urbanism by strictly anchoring itself to the notion of a city deliberately pushes to the margins semi-urban and rural areas as villages. For another, urban is modern, scientific and rational, while rural is feudal, slow and not attuned to progress. This ensures that urbanity is seen as distinct from rurality.  So, why should this distinction exist in the first place that distances agriculture and food as non-urban?

Big implications of the big question

Every single urban-rural distinction stems from this conceptualisation. For food such a distinction has stark implications. So, if the French have their proverbial country dish Ratatouille – made famous by Pixar’s movie of the same name – Indians have a good old counterpart in Makki ki Roti and Sarson ka Saag – made famous by countless Bollywood movies that squeeze time and again the trope of pristine countryside and green farms. There are also urban foods: mass produced burgers and pizzas at one end to exotic dishes made out of caviar and truffles at the other.

There is another implication, starker than the first. When one cooks at home or goes to a restaurant for a leisurely dinner or grabs a cup of cutting chai and vadapav on the go, no one really knows from where the ingredients are coming from. There is, of course, a simplistic and reductive imagination of food being grown by some farmers in indeterminate rural areas and poultry and meat products coming from butchers and factories. But it’s sorely inadequate and doesn’t really answer several questions about the origins of food. In short, food is unknown, indeterminate and in popular imagination somehow comes into the city and gets into store shelves as packets that can be consumed either straightway or through some form of cooking.

The same principles of scale, size, standardisation, retail networks and logistical muscle applied to a seemingly urban enterprise and activity produce a completely different result for the origin test. So, a car or a laptop, for instance, does end up on shelves but every single part of the product is tagged and barcoded to such an extent that the worker who actually crafted the silicon chip or moulded the car bumper can be identified. It’s ironical that systems thinking underpinning classical urbanism organises ‘urban’ activities so minutely but selectively engages with ‘rural’ activities only to the extent that it contributes to formation of urbanity and the ideal city. By making the origins of food indeterminate and vague, classical urbanism keeps perpetuating the notion – a myth – that farming and agriculture is one and the same thing. In doing so, it fundamentally breaks the organic human relationship with food, one that’s not about consumption but also location, localities, cultures and origins. In short, classical urbanism makes food not only indeterminate, but also non-local.

Classical urbanism and food as a non-local entity

Food is an integral part of the social relationships that constitute and define the dynamics of a space. For instance, partaking festival meals with extended family, clan and community is as much about food as it is about renewing bonds of trust, love, empathy and loyalty. Food is also an integral part of the processes that turn a space into a place. For instance, high streets of global cities filled with Michelin-starred restaurants are again as much about food as they are about making a social statement. In short, food defines space and place and it does so by being determinate through an established socio-cultural context and a reasonably sure point of origin. Non-local is not global. Neither is it regional, cultural or political. Non-local is purely economic, and that too narrowly transactional. Non-local is rootless to the extent of only having a basic monetary identity. This constant process of mass non-localisation makes city dwellers assume that growing, sourcing, producing and distributing food is something others are responsible for, others invariably being the rural mass of food growers lumped together as agriculturists.

Non-localisation is also an intrusive process that destroys all notions personal space and public space and the realms of social, cultural and political. The insidiousness of this form of intrusiveness is to such an extent that the average city-dweller fails to recognise it when he sees it. It ranges from solidified hydrogenated vegetable oil being sold as near approximations of ice creams (appropriately marketed as frozen desserts) to chemically ripened fruits and vegetables dipped in all sorts of deadly cocktails to make them appear fresh and green. In simple terms, non-localisation distances a human being from his food by obscuring its origins and by breaking the age-old human connection with ecology, environment and farming.

The sustainability and resilience burden of non-localisation is immense. It leads to system where the origins of food are no longer relevant. For instance, the hydrogenated vegetable oil that one enjoys as frozen dessert comes from palm plantations of Indonesia and Malaysia that have been established after clearing tropical rainforests and displacing several tribes that had been living in harmony for thousands of years. Just to reiterate the case, just the transportation of the oil to other parts of the world – through merchant ships – leaves a massive carbon footprint. The other socioeconomic, cultural and political costs of this form of food sourcing cannot really be measured.

Classical urbanism fosters non-localisation as a fundamental mechanism to provision and provide food at scale. This ensures that a city-dweller does not have any agency or ownership of food. Yes, you can buy food, but can you really own it in the way you own a company by having shares in it or how you possess a car or a house? Can a city-dweller actually determine the way food is produced, distributed and consumed?

Quantum urbanism and food as urban sovereignty

The question in short is this: can an average urban citizen become food sovereign? Sovereignty in the context of urban food means a relative autonomy to choose. Autonomy means that every person should have access to same or similar food choices, to practical, material and knowledge resources on growing food and an equal or equivalent ability to take decisions individually and collectively to determine what’s relevant and best for their local environment, sociocultural context and long-term sustainability and resilience of their community. In short, real urban sovereignty can only be achieved when people have control over their immediate surroundings and environment. Control is more or less directly proportional to size. Size is very different from scale. The best way to understand the difference between size and scale is to think of a blue whale and an ant. A blue whale is sheer size, while an ant is scale because it lives in a colony, knows the other ants, cooperates and collaborates and together as a colony builds such tall anthills that if converted to human terms would be four Burj Khalifas put together. It’s important to note that we still don’t have the technology to erect such high structures.

Since control and agency is directly proportional to size, and not scale, sovereignty in the true sense can only be local. In practical terms, it means that both communities and individuals have to take centre-stage. It also means that both will have to come together in various forms and shapes – from collectives, forums and networks to producer companies, platforms and social businesses – to start owning the process of growing, producing and distributing food for themselves and others like them. It’s only when you own food in the truest possible sense that you become food sovereign. Quantum urbanism not only allows for that possibility, but distinctly favours as it one of the more ‘probable’ probabilities. Within the emerging quantum urbanism of urban spaces, people like you and me are both individualists and collectivists at the same time, probability is a reality that we deal with on daily basis, measurement does define reality, relationships are always co-local and urban is always a set of emergent possibilities.

All of this leads us to two fundamental questions. Are we expected to grow our own food or at least significant portions of it? And, if so, how’s it even possible? The answer to both questions is a yes. Till we do not get literally back to our roots by owning the source of food, we will not have true food sovereignty. The inherent limitations of classical urbanism will not allow us to explore and fructify (pun intended) such a possibility. But quantum urbanism allows us to break the shackles imposed by the false distinctions between rural and urban, between people and communities, between economy and culture, between politics and governance, and between urban life and living. Growing your own food is also not as outlandish as it seems. Two examples will suffice. One is institutional and other is communitarian. Both are creative responses to the emerging quantum nature of our urban lives.

Singapore has largely depended on Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries for its fruits and vegetable requirements. In 2010, for the first time, the city state was covered by a massive haze cloud for almost three weeks that drifted from Malaysia as result of the burning of tropical forests for creating new palm plantations. Every year, since 2010, the city state has faced a haze cloud. This prompted the Singaporean authorities to actively approach the question of sustainability. One of the byproducts of this active thinking was the city state’s effort to convert vacant public land like parking lots, commercial rooftops and land meant for future constructions into urban farms. Notably, these farms were allowed to be owned and run only by communities and social business enterprises. The city state now has an active programme for urban farming: with training courses, starter kits, seeds, organic farming techniques and pioneer and mentor farmers. Last heard, close to 60 percent of the greens available in the city state’s fair price shops come from these community-owned local farms.

The second example is of a group of amateur gardening enthusiasts in Florida who noticed that backyards of suburban houses were rarely used. These enthusiasts banded together and evolved a model where they would lease the vacant backyards from owners for either a nominal sum or for a certain share of the vegetables, fruits and flowers they would grow. In the process, they brought back many of the indigenous vegetable and fruit varieties and created an ownership model where every single household had a stake. These households collectively decided what would be grown for a particular season. Last heard, this group was heading to nearby areas of Florida with the same model so as to achieve a ‘networked scale’.

Quantum urbanism opens us up to the possibility that food can now exist both as local viewpoint and as a global worldview. In charting out a pathway towards urban sovereignty by owning our food, we might be able to answer some of the questions of sustainable life and living for our future urban spaces.

Next: Leisure as urban life and living: Moving beyond holiday tourism and weekend entertainment

Swaminathan is visiting research fellow at Uppsala University Sweden where he is part the project ‘Future Urbanism’. He is also research director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy, Ashoka University.

(The column appears in the September 30, 2017 issue)



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